Hamilton on pole as Vettel starts from back of grid
Mercedes man benefits from Ferrari engine woes Pit crew’s expertise saves day after frustrating Friday
Lewis Hamilton is driving out of his skin at the moment, but it has to be said Mercedes’ megastar is also enjoying a fair dollop of good fortune.
After he profited from an openinglap collision between the two Ferraris in Singapore two weekends ago, his title hopes received another significant boost yesterday as engine trouble meant championship rival Sebastian Vettel failed to register a time in qualifying for today’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
The German – who had looked to have easily the best pace in free practice – will now start from the back of the grid, while Hamilton, who leads the championship by 28 points after three successive wins, will start from pole, the 70th of his career. What had promised to be a breathless title run-in is in danger of blowing itself out early.
Nothing is guaranteed today, of course, particularly at Sepang where the weather can wreak havoc – the Michael Fishes out here reckon there is a very strong possibility of showers, and when it rains in Malaysia, it really rains – but it feels as if the cards are beginning to fall in Hamilton’s favour.
Vettel’s misfortune yesterday was compounded by the fact that Hamilton suddenly discovered a bit of pace himself. Mercedes chief Toto Wolff had described Friday as the “worst” he could recall in the team’s entire history, with the car over a second off the pace of the Ferraris. “It is unbalanced and sliding all over the place,” he had said. “The tyres are overheating and there is a gremlin in the car.”
If there’s something strange underneath your hood who are you going to call? Hamilton was left thanking the gremlin-busters in his pit crew as he flew around the Sepang circuit in Q3, extracting the absolute maximum from his machine and eventually matching Michael Schumacher’s achievement in setting five pole laps here.
“I have no idea how the guys turned it around, but I am really grateful,” said Hamilton, who had reverted to an old set-up with team-mate Valtteri Bottas using the new aerodynamic upgrade Mercedes suspected caused problems on Friday. “It’s a surprise to be up here with these guys. But there’s a long, long run down to turn one, so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Vettel was left ruing his luck. His engine first failed in final practice an hour or two before qualifying. And although it was changed for qualifying, it did not run properly. The German went out briefly at the start of Q1 but was quickly back in the pits, sitting forlornly in his car as his mechanics beavered away around him.
Vettel has shown himself capable of moving through the pack before. He started last at Abu Dhabi in 2012 and went on to finish third in a race from which Hamilton retired. And there is still a good chance for him to do something today, particularly if it rains. But it will require something special.
He claimed he was “still fairly relaxed”, given the overtaking opportunities at Sepang, a track which is hosting its last ever F1 race.
“I think we would have gone all the way today, but now we start last,” he said. “We save some tyres and who knows what will happen tomorrow if we have rain or a safety car? The race is not today, and it would be worse if this had happened tomorrow.
“The car is quick. I am still fairly relaxed. Overtaking here is straightforward, and when you have a quick car, you produce big drives.”
The reality, though, is that Hamilton holds the whip hand. He can afford to play it safe, with podiums probably enough for him from here on in. Not that he will see it that way. He will want to win, and his chances of doing so increased after a lock-up from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen into the final corner yesterday which appeared to gift the Briton pole by four-hundredths.
The second row, meanwhile, will feature the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, with both Verstappen – celebrating his 20th birthday yesterday – and Raikkonen joking that they needed to keep it clean today after what happened in Singapore when they were caught up in that three-way collision with Vettel.
“I don’t want to be sandwiched – that’s the only thing,” Verstappen said when asked what his tactics at the start might be. “I don’t want to be hit,” countered Raikkonen. Touche.
Hamilton will want to play it safe, too. Having trailed Vettel in the title race over the summer break, everything appears to be falling into place for him, although he cautioned he was still unsure whether the car really had turned the corner this weekend.
“We had such a difficult day yesterday,” he concluded. “I didn’t sleep very well last night because we just didn’t know if we’d fix the issue or not.
“As I said, it’s a surprise to be up here. It’s always a special thing to be able to extract a little bit more out of the car than it’s willing to give. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed , my dad would say. My first go-kart was fifthhand or something like that, and he’d say it was like a four-poster bed.
“Not that my car was a four-poster bed today, but I was hoping I could extract a little bit more out of it.”
Making a point: Britain’s Lewis Hamilton celebrates securing pole position after final qualifying for today’s Malaysian Grand Prix